Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


with 30 comments

As the pads of a prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) die, they often become
mottled in ways that are bound to intrigue a nature photograph—or at least this one.

I made these portraits on September 3rd near the Sierra Nevada entrance to Great Hills Park. The overcast skies preceding rain led me to use flash for a change, and that had the advantage of letting me stop down in all three of these pictures to f/14 for good depth of field and crisp details. In the last picture the drying needles and little fruits had fallen from an Ashe juniper tree (Juniperus ashei).

And here’s a thought for today: You’ve probably heard someone say “You can’t prove a negative.” It depends. Some negatives can be proved. For example, take the question of whether a fraction exists such that when you multiply the fraction by itself the result is exactly 2. An infinite number of fractions exist, so you can’t multiply each and every fraction by itself to find out whether the result is ever 2. Maybe you’ll get close: for instance, 99/70 multiplied by itself gives 9801/4900, which is close to 2, but you can see that the top is just slightly more than twice the bottom. It turns out that no fraction has the property that when you multiply it by itself you get exactly 2. Maybe equally surprising is the fact that smart people were able to prove that negative as long ago as ancient Greece. Hats off to the ancient Greeks.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 5, 2020 at 4:34 AM

30 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. i love the details that change with each one


    September 5, 2020 at 5:29 AM

    • Like fingerprints, no two are alike. I photographed six in all but felt it would be repetitious to show more than a few at one time.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2020 at 5:52 AM

  2. At first look, I thought you had tadpoles or polliwogs. All three, but especially the first two, speak to me abstractly. And, regarding your thought for the day, I’m reminded of the elementary English teacher saying to the class that two negatives make a positive, but two positives never make a negative, in response to which a small voice comes from the back row: “Yeah, right.”


    September 5, 2020 at 5:42 AM

    • Agreed: it was the abstract nature of the designs that grabbed me. I could’ve cropped in on the third picture to make it similarly abstract, but as there were some Ashe juniper needles on the pad I kept the larger view for context.

      One interesting feature of mathematics is that the same pattern can turn up in different situations. Take the pattern that you mentioned for multiplication of positives and negatives. Change multiplication to addition, replace positive with even and negative with odd, and the same pattern holds.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2020 at 6:21 AM

  3. These are indeed intriguing. I particularly like the third one. It has a wonderful composition with unity of color and lots of different texture and elements.

    Yup, some of those Greeks were pretty smart, weren’t they?


    September 5, 2020 at 7:26 AM

    • Leave it to the painter to see “a wonderful composition with unity of color and lots of different texture and elements.” Those were the elements that called out to me to make these portraits. And yes, some of those Greeks were super smart.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2020 at 9:06 AM

  4. And here is your proof that a dying plant can be as beautiful and even longer-lasting than its flower.

    Peter Klopp

    September 5, 2020 at 8:19 AM

  5. These are magnificent. It’s a fractal world. I could envision looking down on the surface of a very strange but nonetheless beautiful planet.

    Michael Scandling

    September 5, 2020 at 10:13 AM

  6. At first glance, I thought I was looking at lichen-covered rock. The last photo reminds me of granite; the colors certainly evoke autumn in the hill country. Further cropping would have made it a nice match to the other two, but I’m glad you decided to show it this way. Photographically, the spines and glochids certainly stand out in the top two images: proof that a dying prickly pear still requires caution.


    September 5, 2020 at 10:14 AM

    • I understand how at first glance you could’ve thought in the first two pictures that you were seeing lichens on rocks. Sooner or later the curving cactus spines dispel that image. Caution is in order not only with dying prickly pear pads but even with what’s left on the ground nearby. That’s another reason I carry my mat with me. I’ve often enough found spines and glochids in the mat’s lower surface that otherwise would have ended up in my skin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2020 at 1:08 PM

  7. I think I must be more on the look out!


    September 5, 2020 at 10:23 AM

    • Your comment made the words “Guck mal” pop into my head. Yes, do look around at prickly pear pads. There’s no shortage of them in our areas.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2020 at 1:11 PM

  8. I brought this species back from Oklahoma!


    September 5, 2020 at 2:27 PM

  9. Excellent, colorful details, Steve.

    Jane Lurie

    September 5, 2020 at 3:24 PM

  10. I will leave the mathematics to you and the Greeks and simply say that the third photo is my favourite. Such lovely colours in the decaying cactus pad.


    September 6, 2020 at 5:10 AM

    • Like you, I found these colors and forms fascinating. Do you know why you prefer the third picture?

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 6, 2020 at 5:58 AM

      • Not exactly. It was just something about the way the colours blended in with the surroundings that appealed to me.


        September 6, 2020 at 6:14 AM

        • I suspected it might have had something to do with the surroundings. I originally put that in my question, then took it out because I didn’t want to influence you.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 6, 2020 at 7:46 AM

  11. I see something similar to Gary’s vision but a little bit earlier in the reproduction scenario. That’s a nice close and observant look in your images. I did something similar today with rotting wood.

    Steve Gingold

    September 6, 2020 at 2:27 PM

  12. Hmm, I have never looked at an expired prickly pear in this way, but you can bet I will have a closer look now. Generally, there is a lot of beauty to be found in death in nature. I’m quite fond of dead leaves and trees, and plant blossoms and seeds. Even bones that I find, or a dried, leathery hide shows something interesting. I keep going back to that first photograph. It’s my favorite!


    September 7, 2020 at 7:55 AM

    • I’ve been noticing decaying prickly pear pads for years have taken plenty of pictures of them over that period. The first one, which you singled out, also caught my attention the most when I saw it on my computer. Fortunately there’s no shortage of prickly pears in central Texas and even in my neighborhood, which is where these pictures came from. Like you, I’ve also noticed drying leaves and seed heads, both of which I photographed this morning.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 7, 2020 at 7:02 PM

  13. The first more abstract image is my favorite here … I wasn’t sure what it was until reading and seeing the second.


    September 10, 2020 at 12:27 PM

    • It was the first of these that especially grabbed me, too. I understand how you weren’t initially sure what it was; people don’t expect to see a picture of a prickly pear pad that has no green in it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 10, 2020 at 12:58 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: